The fact of the matter is I’m a stone cold atheist. Though I was raised Methodist I rejected Christianity and indeed all forms of religion by the time I was 12 (though I continued to sing in choir and participate in other social activities for a while after that).
My purpose is not to sneer at your particular beliefs or convert you to mine but to demonstrate that it’s possible to consider ethical and moral behavior independent of religion or appeal to divine judgment which I will do in the form of two parables, The Ring of Gyges and The Bodhi Tree.
The Ring of Gyges
The Ring of Gyges is a historical myth. Historical in the sense that it was written of in Plato’s Republic which no reality based scholar of Western Literature or Philosophy denies was written and that it contains this story (though some debate the date of it’s composition which is generally accepted as approximately 360 B.C.E.).
Mythological in the sense that it’s a deliberate fiction that contradicts historical facts not only as we know them today through Archeology and several independent written Histories of the period, but also the facts as the Greeks knew them as close contemporaries of the time the events supposedly took place. It is a metaphor told to illustrate the points being argued, in this case the nature of Justice (indeed some translate the Greek to mean On Justice instead of The Republic, but that was frequently confused with a non-canonical piece also titled On Justice so we’ll go with the common name).
Anyway, the story goes something like this-
A shepherd discovers a ring that makes him invisible, indeed immune to the very concept of Justice as enforced by any outside force be it a god or society’s disapproval. Using the ring he seduces the wife of the King, assassinates him, marries the wife, and installs himself as the new King.
Nobody knows or suspects his actions (except the wife who conveniently disappears, and by that I don’t mean that he kills her to ensure her silence necessarily, just that she’s no longer relevant to the metaphor and is ignored).
He goes on to live his life a King and as we all know- it’s good to be the King.
Now imagine, continues Glaucon (Plato’s brother with whom he clearly sympathizes in this argument), that there are two such rings, one given to an unjust man (like the shepherd obviously) and one to a just man-
(N)o man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
There is much debate, but what Socrates says is- “(J)ustice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy.” I’ll note that’s a paraphrase provided by Wikipedia but I find it felicitous and it makes my point- a wise person understands the problem of absolute power is not what others do to you though they be god or society, it is what happens to you through abuse of that power by nature of the power itself.
Masters of the Universe take note!
The Bodhi Tree
While I don’t believe in god, any of them, I do have a teacher named Siddhartha Gautama the life and teaching of whom I have found instructive.
He’s at least as historical as Jesus, though like Jesus his teachings were not codified in writing until centuries after his death. Most modern (reality based) historians date his birth sometime between 500 to 400 B.C.E.
He was a Prince in India and lived a life of absolute privilege. As Arlo Guthrie said of the pharaoh, his joints came pre-rolled and lit. His mother died in childbirth and his father, the King, sought to spare him any knowledge of suffering.
At the age of 29 (traditionally) Siddhartha left the palace to meet his subjects, among them an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. Being a sensitive and empathetic kind of guy he recognized the suffering of the human condition and renounced his life of luxury, his wife and child, and went off to become a mendicant monk.
After nearly starving himself to death he had an enlightenment that maybe severe aestheticism wasn’t the best way to live your life either and started thinking- “So what is the nature of suffering?”
- Life is suffering
- The cause of suffering is desire
- There is an end of suffering
- The eightfold way
In other words, we can’t always get what we want, the problem is that we want what we can’t always get, the solution to that is to focus on what we can control, and that is our actions and attitudes.
What can we control?
- Right Understanding, being reality based and knowing you can’t always get what you want.
- Right Aspiration, trying to live in a way that focuses on what you can control, your actions and attitudes.
- Right Effort, making a real attempt to live a just and balanced life, no excuses or self pitying rationalizations.
- Right Speech, speaking the truth in a helpful and compassionate way (though that truth thing is more important, just saying).
- Right Living, acting in a way consistent with your values.
- Right Livelihood, earning your money in a way consistent with your values.
- Right Mindfulness, focusing on what you can do now instead of living with the regrets of the past or worrying about the future.
- Right Concentration, thinking about your values, preconceptions, and prejudices and considering their implications on your actions and attitudes.
In Buddhist thought these are considered the core beliefs and as you’ll note they’re not particularly religious or spiritual at all. After he stopped trying to kill himself living up to other’s expectations, my teacher sat in the shade under a fig tree and ate the fruit it provided and taught those who would stop and listen until, at a ripe old age, he died.
And got off the wheel.
And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!
I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.